Exod.15:27 – 16:26
When I was in college I spent several summers working at a church camp. That was a great job. It was in a beautiful setting – the Black Hills of South Dakota. Every Sunday a new group of campers – usually teenagers – would come and throughout the week God would work in their lives, often in powerful ways. Some came to faith in Jesus, and others were strengthened in their relationship with Jesus.
But as the week would come to an end, almost always the campers would express the same fear. They had just had this incredible, mountaintop experience with God. Their faith had taken on new meaning and their lives were changed. But now they had to go home, leaving this Christian environment behind. They would not have the constant support of their Christian friends. The temptations they left behind in their hometowns would be there waiting for them when they returned. They’d come face to face with peer pressure all over again. Their new faith would be put to the test, and it was frightening for many of them.
Perhaps some of you can relate to that. As a teenager you had a life-changing experience at a Christian camp. Maybe that is when you came to faith in Jesus, or your faith was strengthened in a profound way, and you just wished you could stay at that camp with all your Christian friends. That would be so much easier than having to be true to your faith, and keep growing in your faith back home. But of course, you had to come down from the mountaintop and return home.
Or maybe some of you had a similar experience but not as a teenager at camp. Perhaps you went to a weekend retreat as an adult and God moved powerfully in your life. Or maybe you didn’t go anywhere but there was a brief time when God touched your life in an amazing way and God seemed so real to you. You would read your Bible and it was if God was speaking directly to you, and when you prayed there was no doubt that you were in touch with God. You wanted it to go on forever, but of course, it didn’t.
In our walk with God from time to time God blesses us with some powerful, life-changing moments in which it is as if God is right beside us and we could reach out and touch Him. Our faith is strengthened and our desire to live for God is renewed. But those times don’t last forever, and soon we find ourselves back in the real world, living out our day-to-day lives in which our tedious routines may discourage us, temptations threaten us, and non-believers challenge us. That sense of intimacy with God is but a faded memory.
If you have had that kind of experience, you are not alone. For none of us can live on the mountaintop with God. Our faith is renewed, and then we are sent back into the world to live by faith and as His witnesses regardless of whether or not we have that deep and intimate sense of God’s presence.
That was the experience of the Israelites in their exodus out of Egypt. They witnessed God’s care for them as He sent the ten plagues to convince Pharaoh to let them leave Egypt. When the chariots of Pharaoh and his army were closing in, they dramatically witnessed God’s power and faithfulness as the waters parted and they crossed the sea on dry ground. They knew God was with them for He led them by the cloud during the day and the pillar of fire at night. After several days of walking through the hot, dry desert, it says in Exod. 15:27, “Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there near the water.”
Elim – a wonderful oasis in the desert. Plenty of refreshing water. A bit of shade and some dates from the palm trees. For some ex-slaves in the desert, this was the good life. The God of Moses could be counted on. “He delivered us from slavery. He led us out of Egypt. He parted the sea for us. It’s been just one dramatic encounter with God after another. And now God has led us to the oasis of Elim. God be praised!” they must have been thinking. No point in moving on, for this was as good as it gets.
But moving on is just what God would have them do. The oasis was a place to be refreshed for the journey, but not a place to live. So picking up their story in chapter 16, we read:
The whole Israelite community set out from Elim and came to the desert of Sin (not related to the act or concept of sin), which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had come out of Egypt. In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”
Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.”
The Israelites had trekked through the desert about three days or so between crossing the Red Sea and camping at Elim. Three days of walking through the desert is probably about three days more than any of us would like to spend there. When they arrived at Elim, with its springs of fresh water and palm trees, they were ready to stay put. They had no desire to move on. But God gave them about six weeks there, and that was all. For it says that on the fifteenth day of the second month after leaving Egypt, they set out from Elim. And in no time at all it says the whole community began to grumble against Moses and Aaron. Can’t you just hear them? “Hey, we already spent three days in the desert! What are we doing back here again? We don’t want to spend any more time in the desert! We didn’t leave Egypt just to wander in the desert!”
In the hot desert sun and in their self-pity they began to think of their former days in Egypt. There are two ways of looking at the past. One is helpful and the other is detrimental. The first way is looking back and seeing how God has been faithful to us. We remember the times when God intervened in our lives, when He sustained us, healed us, delivered us, and comforted us. And those memories give us courage and confidence to face whatever circumstances confront us now or in the future.
That’s why later in this chapter, after God had miraculously supplied manna for the Israelites to eat in the desert, God commanded that they take a jar full of manna and save it in the Ark of the Covenant for the sake of generations to come. That jar of manna would be a reminder to them of how God faithfully took care of their ancestors in the desert, and thus they could be assured of God’s faithfulness to them.
That’s part of the reason we celebrate Holy Communion. We do it in remembrance of Jesus. We do it so we can be reminded of the depth of God’s love in forgiving our sins at the cross. And as we remember God’s love we experience it afresh, so that we can be encouraged in our day-to-day lives.
Whenever we face difficult, challenging, or discouraging circumstances, rather than being overwhelmed by those circumstances it is good for us to take a step back and remember God’s goodness and faithfulness to us in the past. Recount the times God has answered your prayers, met your needs, or came through for you at just the right moment. Mountaintop experiences with God don’t last, but we can remember them, reflecting on God’s grace in meeting us. As we do, we will be encouraged and given renewed strength to face those difficult circumstances.
But there is another way of remembering the past, and this is the way the Israelites chose as they found themselves again in the desert. Instead of looking back on God’s faithfulness in delivering them out of slavery and leading them through the Red Sea, they chose instead to enhance their past, thinking it was better than it really was, as a way of highlighting how bad their present circumstances were. As a result they complained to Moses and Aaron, “There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”
The Israelites thought back on the good ol’ days. But of course, the good ol’ days were never as good as we remember them. As slaves they did not have pots full of meat and all the food they wanted. That’s why when God first called Moses, He said (Exod. 3:7), “I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.” As the Israelites sat on that hot desert sand, their memory was distorted. They forgot how they suffered under the slave drivers.
Whenever we remember the past in this sense, contrasting it with our present difficulties, we end up misconstruing the past, imagining that it was better than it really way. “If only we wouldn’t have moved because it was so much better before. If only I hadn’t changed jobs because my previous job was a lot more enjoyable.” And then like the Israelites, we grumble about our circumstances, thinking we had it so much better before. That is deceiving ourselves, for it likely wasn’t as good as we remember it, and the truth is we have no way of knowing if things would be good now if we remained in our past circumstances.
But as the Israelites grumbled about being out in the desert, not only to Moses and Aaron but really to God, here we see the amazing patience and grace of God. For how did God respond to their grumbling? God didn’t dismiss their complaints. God didn’t judge them for their grumbling. Not that God doesn’t care about such behavior, for elsewhere in Scripture we are warned against grumbling. In fact, later in their journey the Israelites faced some severe consequences for their continued grumbling. But in this case, God knew the Israelites were just beginning their life of faith. Furthermore, Scripture was not written yet, so the Israelites couldn’t read of God’s faithfulness.
One of the wonderful things about God is that He takes us where we are. God doesn’t expect us to be mature followers of Jesus just a few weeks into our walk of faith. God knows that when we first place our faith in Christ, we bring a lot of baggage from our old life with us – sinful habits, patterns of selfishness, flawed character traits, and unhealthy ways of relating to others.
Transformation is a process. Over time, as we regularly surrender to the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives, our faith matures, our understanding of God and His ways grows, our character is transformed, our obedience increases, and our love for God and others deepens.
This doesn’t mean we should be content with where we are, but God takes us where we are. As we daily surrender, letting the truth of Scripture shape us and the Holy Spirit transform us, over time we become mature followers of Jesus. As we will see in a moment, it is crucial that we daily attend to that.
And so when the Israelites complained about not having food to eat in the desert, knowing that their life of faith and trusting in Him was new for the Israelites, God said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you.”
God assured the Israelites that He would provide for them. And God did by supplying manna every morning. But it’s interesting that with this expression of God’s grace and provision there also came a test for the Israelites. The Israelites were to gather only enough for each day, while gathering a double portion on the sixth day to last them through the Sabbath when there would be no manna. Regarding this, God said, “In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions.”
The purpose of this test, as with whenever God tests us, was that the Israelites would grow in their faith and learn that they could depend on God, and as a result of that obey God. Not all the Israelites passed this test, for later in the chapter it says that some gathered more than they needed for the day. But the next morning they discovered that what they had tried to hoard for themselves had gone bad and was full of maggots. In a similar way, some went out on the Sabbath to collect manna only to discover that there wasn’t any.
Having led the Israelites out of Egypt, God wasn’t going to abandon them in the desert. But in order for the Israelites to learn that God is completely faithful, they had to be placed in a situation where they had no choice but to depend on God. There was no food for them naturally in the desert. And they had no control over the appearance of the manna. All they could do was depend on God day by day. That’s why God instructed them to gather only enough manna for the day, so that daily they would experience God’s faithfulness.
The temptation, of course, being out in the desert where there was no source of food would be to collect and stash as much as you could. That’s sort of our default mode, isn’t it? It’s what we naturally resort to. When we find ourselves in a threatening or stretching situation, we immediately try to take control rather than believing and trusting God. That’s what some of the Israelites did. They were in the desert with no food around. One morning they discovered the manna and thought they needed to take control by gathering as much as they could. For who knows if there will be manna tomorrow? But if God would have let them get away with that, then the Israelites would have ended trusting in themselves and in their stockpiles of manna instead of trusting in God and His faithfulness day by day.
In a similar fashion Jesus instructed us to pray, “Father, give us this day our daily bread.” We don’t get a whole year’s supply every January 1st. For if we did we would soon forget about God and His faithfulness – at least, until next January 1st when we needed to be re-supplied. As was true for the Israelites back then, so we too must depend on God on a daily basis.
Seen from another angle, God’s instructions that the manna was to be collected everyday but only enough for the day reminds us that some things cannot be stored up for a later time. They must be tended to daily, or at least regularly.
Obviously our walk with God is like that. Once in a while, as I mentioned earlier, we have some kind of mountaintop experience with God that refreshes our faith, which was symbolized by the Israelites at the Oasis of Elim, but soon we are sent out into the desert of day-to-day living. And there, with jobs that are all consuming, family responsibilities that are demanding, health that wavers, finances that don’t stretch far enough, neighbors that are irritating, temptations that lure us, loneliness that haunts us and dreams that don’t come true, there God invites us to experience His presence day by day.
There God tests us to see if we will stick with Him – not only on the refreshing mountaintop but also in the wearisome valley. If that is our desire, God will sustain us by giving us what we need – one day at a time for God’s mercies are new every morning. And through that our faith is strengthened as we experience God’s faithfulness day by day. As the Israelites needed to gather manna every day, so we need to nurture our soul every day if we are to maintain a sense of God’s presence and faithfulness.
If our relationship with God is to be fresh and vital, it needs regular maintenance. While we don’t want to become legalistic by suggesting everyone must spend a certain amount of time with God in prayer and Bible study everyday, nevertheless if that is not a regular part of our lives our relationship with God will fizzle out. God will seem distant.
We can go to a retreat or a conference every few years or even every year and we may have a mountaintop experience. And while the aftereffects of that may last a few days or even a few weeks, that won’t last until next year. True, we can look back and remember what God did and be encouraged by that, but we can’t store up that experience and then draw on it a little at a time.
The Israelites needed to be nurtured by the manna every day. In Jn. 6 Jesus said He was the true bread that came down from heaven to give life to the world. He came to nurture our souls, fill us hope, satisfy us with joy, and encourage us with His love. As the Israelites had to gather manna every day to be nourished physically, so we need to regularly meet with Jesus if we are to be nurtured and strengthened in faith, if our relationship with Jesus is to be meaningful and life-giving.
Again, we should never see this as a legalistic obligation like a rule we must keep. Rather this is a gift from God. Just think – the God of all creation invites us into His presence. What an honor! And that is the means by which we experience personal growth, deepening faith, and the assurance of God’s love and faithfulness.
This shouldn’t be surprising, for the same principle is true in all the important relationships of our lives. If we are married, that relationship needs regular nurture. It’s great to have some special times of celebration, such as an anniversary getaway. Many couples have benefited from attending a “Marriage Enrichment” weekend. Such experiences can give a real boost to your marriage. But as wonderful as those experiences are, you can’t store them up like a bank account and draw a little bit out in the months and years ahead. After awhile, they are only a memory – no doubt a pleasant memory, but just a memory nonetheless. In the end the quality of your marriage will be determined by the regular maintenance you give it, constantly doing the little things that nurture it day by day.
So it is with our relationship with God. How refreshing it is to our faith when we have some kind of mountaintop experience with God. But as wonderful as those experiences are, they are not what sustain us in our day-to-day routines. They are like the oasis at Elim, providing times of refreshment. We come away re-energized. We can remember them and be encouraged. But then, like the Israelites gathering fresh manna every morning while in the desert, the real key is the regular attention we give to our relationship with God, feeding daily on the true bread that came from heaven, Jesus our Lord.
If we do that, we will discover that even the desert, even the sometimes dull routine of day-to-day life can be a place of nourishment, growth, and fulfillment. The Israelites learned that the path to the Promised Land was through the desert, but God faithfully provided manna for them there. For us, the path to wholeness and maturity in Christ is along that same route. We may go through some desert times, but Jesus, the bread of life, promised to never leave or forsake us. He will be there to feed our souls, nurture our spirits, give us hope, shape our character, and encourage us with His love, for He is faithful. But it’s up to us to meet Him every day.